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With: Ethan Hawke, Julia Stiles, Kyle MacLachlan, Sam Shepard, Diane Venora, Bill Murray, Liev Schreiber, Karl Geary, Steve Zahn, Dechen Thurman, Jeffrey Wright, Casey Affleck, Paul Bartel, Paula Malcomson, Larry Fessenden
Written by: Michael Almereyda, based on a play by William Shakespeare
Directed by: Michael Almereyda
MPAA Rating: R for some violence
Running Time: 112
Date: 01/24/2000

Hamlet (2000)

3 Stars (out of 4)

B-Movie Shakespeare

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

There doesn't seem to be a consensus on how many movies of William Shakespeare's Hamlet have been made. It's somewhere between 40 and 50, they say. I do know that three major versions have been released in theaters in the last 10 years: Franco Zeffirelli's claustrophobic version with a wild-eyed Mel Gibson in the title role, Kenneth Branagh's majestic four-hour version (perhaps the quintessential Hamlet), and now Michael Almereyda's modern-day Hamlet with Ethan Hawke.

Perhaps it's because of the great number of Hamlets that a filmmaker would want to add his own version to the pile. For example, there is only one Citizen Kane (1941), and to remake that, you would only be compared to the original. This way, your version doesn't seem like such an anomaly. After all, Hamlet is considered arguably to be the greatest of Shakespeare's plays, and Hamlet the greatest character in all of theater.

Almereyda marks his version by setting it in the year 2000 in New York City. Denmark is now the name of a corporation, and kings are now CEO's. The movie is immersed in our modern-day consumerism and technology. The relentless product placement is not there to advertise and make money--it's to point out how much advertising has become a part of our lives. Speeches are delivered over cell-phones and answering machines, standing in Blockbuster Video, or with Mr. Moviefone's voice booming in the background. The Ghost of Hamlet's father fades away into a Pepsi machine. I've already heard purists squawking about this approach, how it's not "proper" or whatever. But it's my belief that Shakespeare was meant to be tinkered with.

Everyone knows the story by now: Hamlet is incensed by the fact that his mother has married so quickly after his father's death. The ghost of his father appears to Hamlet and reveals that the uncle she has married is the murderer. That story doesn't change much here. In the play, Hamlet writes and produces a play outlining the murder plot in order to study the expression of his uncle. In the new movie, Hamlet is a filmmaker who makes a short, experimental film to achieve the same end.

Almereyda gets a gritty, outlaw feel by shooting on both 16mm and on his trademark Pixel camera (a toy camera invented by Fisher Price that shoots in grainy black and white onto a simple audio cassette tape). In a sense, it's B-movie Shakespeare, the same as Orson Welles' inspired version of Macbeth (1948), which was produced on a skimpy budget for a B-picture studio. Almereyda himself is a filmmaking outsider, with a bizarre filmography full of cult B-films: the low-budget Twister (1988) with Harry Dean Stanton and William S. Burroughs; the black-and-white vampire flick Nadja (1994); the Irish zombie movie The Eternal (aka Trance) (1998) with Christopher Walken; and the highly-regarded short Pixelvision films Another Girl, Another Planet (1992) and The Rocking Horse Winner (1998).

But with Hamlet he manages an A-grade cast, starting with Bill Murray as Polonius (father of Ophelia and Laertes). Murray, who has recently been taking Shakespeare classes, nails some scenes cold. Other scenes, he's only passable. But he's one of my favorite actors working today, and I was thrilled to see him at all. Liev Schreiber, who just played Hamlet on stage, plays Laertes and shines above nearly everyone else. He's an outstanding pudgy-faced-handsome actor with presence and talent to burn. Equal to him is Diane Venora (who also played Hamlet, yes Hamlet himself) as Hamlet's mother Gertrude. Kyle MacLachlan is fine as Claudius, and Sam Shepard is memorable as the Ghost of Hamlet's father. Julia Stiles seemed a little lost as Ophelia, but Steve Zahn may be the screen's best Rosencrantz ever.

Which leaves Hawke as Hamlet. According to Almereyda, Hawke is the first under-30 Hamlet ever filmed, and he does an admirable job. His Hamlet is spoiled, brooding, and artistic. Hawke has proven himself already in such excellent films as Before Sunrise (1995) and Gattaca (1997), so it's no surprise that he was able to successfully tackle the Dane.

If I'm not wrong, the screen's most financially successful Shakespeare to date is still Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet (1968), and I don't think this Hamlet, good as it is, will challenge that record. Measure for measure, I liked this Hamlet more than the Mel Gibson version, less than the Kenneth Branagh version, and about the same as the famous 1948 Laurence Olivier version.

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